“An investor that provides crucial expertise, assistance with fundraising, and connections to mega-projects in Africa”
At the beginning of 2021, the Israeli start-up SupPlant found itself in an extremely challenging time, “just before the big breakthrough,” states SupPlant CEO Ori Ben Ner. “We have already started marketing our product and had initial sales, but in agriculture, showing success and reaching a substantial growth rate requires operating over at least one full season. It is a frustrating and demanding stage; to make it, you need investors with a lot of faith who are willing to get into this adventure. You cannot yet practically realize your numerical potential at this stage, but you are no longer selling just promises. And that was Menomadin Foundation’s exact point of entry as an investor.” According to Ben Ner, Menomadin’s impact investment team and the CEO, Dr. Merav Galili, were first to recognize SupPlant’s economic, social, and environmental potential. Haim Taib, President of Menomadin Foundation, is also the Chairman of Mitrelli Group, an international group that establishes food security mega-projects in Africa. “So, on top of the financial investment, the Foundation brought with it an understanding of people and technology, not to mention an acquaintance with the agricultural sector and the unique characteristics of the Agtech world—agriculture technology, climate, and environment,” he says.
In 2015, Ben Ner founded SupPlant, based in the northern Israeli city of Afula, with his partners—two agronomists, and a software expert. They realized they could transform relatively common sensors that sit in the soil and on plants, collecting information and putting them into an AI-based product that can translate the language of the plants. “Our product understands the plants’ reaction to any action the farmer takes, whether it is good or bad, and maximizes growing rate using water,” Ben Ner explains. He and his partners combined these sensors with their algorithm that automatically turns the irrigation system on and off. Whenever the system indicates a decline in growth rate, the irrigation turns on, and the plant starts growing again.
“They Didn’t Want an Autonomous Vehicle, So We Built Them Waze”
“We created a completely autonomous irrigation system that showed phenomenal results in 100 agricultural experiments. We could already see ourselves winning the Nobel Prize, but not even one farmer agreed to allocate us a plot where we could initiate commercialization. We received an enlightening lesson on the difference between technology and product. One of the farmers said to me: ‘You built an amazing autonomous car, but I won’t put my child in the prototype.’”
With this punch to the gut, the partners embarked on a two-year process of rethinking. They built a system that utilizes the potential of their technology but leaves control in the hands of the farmer. “We built a dashboard that shows the farmer all the information about the plants, a weather forecast, and irrigation recommendations adjusted for the week ahead, but we left them the control; the system does not do the work for them.” Ben Ner continues with the metaphor: “They told us, ‘we don’t want an autonomous vehicle,’ so we built them Waze.” There is a profound lesson to be learned here about the psychology of the farmer and of people at large, everywhere, in any context, in every line of occupation.
“Within a Year We Reached Half a Million Farmers in Kenya”
In February 2020, SupPlant started selling its product. “The first to open a door for us were farmers in Israel. It was only natural because, at that time, the world had shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, in Israel, using sensors in agriculture started relatively early, and the familiarity with them made it easier to introduce our algorithm and software to the Israeli agricultural sector.” Thus, SupPlant started proving its feasibility, and from Israel it expanded to South Africa, Mexico, and Australia, and in the last two years, to Morocco and Peru as well.
“In early 2021, when the Menomadin Foundation entered as an investor in SupPlant, it brought with it the capacity to generate significant business,” says Ben Ner. “The opportunity to integrate into our board of directors highly knowledgeable professionals from Mitrelli Group who can help with fundraising and connect us to large agriculture projects, is a tremendous asset; that’s one of the ways that Menomadin facilitated our entry to the African market. It is very much thanks to Menomadin that we were able to reach half a million farmers in Kenya by 2022,” says Ben Ner. “Today, SupPlant is present in seven commercial markets, we have massive sales, you will find us at nine of the ten largest farms in Morocco, we monitor all the date palms in the United Arab Emirates, every tenth olive tree in Morocco and every eighth almond tree in Australia.”
“A Bridge Connecting Israeli Innovation and Projects in Africa”
“Through the Menomadin Foundation, Mitrelli Group connects Israeli technology and innovation to mega-projects we operate in Africa,” says Yuval Maimon, who until recently set on SupPlant’s board and vastly contributed to it being in charge of food security, water, and energy field in Mitrelli. The Group operates agriculture, water supply, and desalination projects of enormous magnitude in Africa, and heads such projects in other impact fields, including energy, communications, health, construction, and more. Eliran Keren, CEO of Menomadin’s Impact Investments arm, now steps into Maimon’s shoes and joins SupPlant’s board, with the understanding that at this point, when SupPlant is already thriving, the added value it needs and can benefit from is in the financial field.
Shedding more light on the financial angle, Ben Ner adds: “Another important advantage of Menomadin is its patience for longer cycles, an advantage that allows us to make more substantial investments, which ultimately amount to more profit. Agricultural technology is influenced by the sector in which it operates, which is a slow-growing sector, but compared to other more rapidly growing ones, it is the biggest market in the world. Paired with the climate change, the possibility we provide to double food yields while conserving water, a resource in shortage almost everywhere in the world, the opportunity here is huge. But you need investors with broad vision who are not in a hurry to make an exit tomorrow morning for such investments to be at all possible,” emphasizes Ben Ner.
Changing the World of the Small Farmer
In the last three years, SupPlant has invested many resources in developing a sensor-free system that benefits small farmers in developing countries at a negligible cost. “Let’s go back for a moment to SupPlant’s beginning, when my grandfather lent us our first trial plot. As a small farmer’s grandson, it was very strange to me that the tools I am developing on his plot, he himself will never be able to afford. To quote another one of our investors: ‘If you can reach a large scope of small farmers who need your technology because of climate change and help them dramatically—you have to do it. We’ll figure out how to make money from it later on.’ This worldview also reflects Menomadin’s agenda,” he says.
Recently, SupPlant has established its API interface that allows the use of its technology on any mobile phone. Harnessing data that’s being continuously collected by SupPlant’s sensor systems physically located on plots of large agricultural companies in 16 countries, 13 climate zones, five continents, and on 32 types of crops—SupPlant knows how to provide small farmers with a weather forecast for a week ahead and specific irrigation practices that conserve water while doubling harvest. “For a farmer with a small field behind their house, the profit from twice the yields or even just ten percent more is not twice, but 200 times that, because the profit is calculated per a certain quantity. The impact is translated to better education for his children, better infrastructure in his house, and often, food on the table. We are so proud to contribute to such impact,” says Ben Ner. “Also, if we reach the pockets of half a billion small farmers or even a small percentage of that—there probably will be a lot of money in it. But that is of secondary importance.”
Ben Ner points out the big difference between selling to huge, multibillion agriculture companies, which are business-oriented, to working with small farmers and third parties, such as governments. “It is challenging but highly satisfying. We did it in Africa, we’re starting to do it in Morocco and Mexico, and we’ve even already managed to charge a small fee for our API service, usually through a third party—not from the small farmer, but from governments and business entities. In this context too, the experience of both Menomadin and Mitrelli contributed greatly,” concludes Ben Ner.